Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, December 9, 2018 (Advent 2 - Year C).
St. Luke 3: 1-6
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I always enjoy reading Frederick Buechner. Often, I encounter his pithy one-liners, in which I really delight. (If you’re interested in looking him up, his name, while pronounced BEAK-ner, is spelled “B-u-e-c-h-n-e-r.”) He is 92 years old. This ordained Presbyterian minister is a masterful writer as well as theologian.
Here is what he says about a prophet, an appropriate mirror for St. John Baptist, it seems to me: “There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.” I came across this single sentence out of context so I have no idea how Buechner would elaborate on that observation, if he did at all, but I have my own ideas. When a prophet is invited into your home for dinner he’s going to want to talk “politics and religion.”
Candy and I had not been in the house five minutes, the lovely B & B in which we stayed for several nights in Vermont in October, when it seemed that “out of the blue” the gracious hostess said to us — and I detected a disparaging tone in her voice — “everyone in Vermont is a Democrat.” That is an exaggeration, of course! Why did she say that, I wondered? Maybe she was cautioning us not to “talk politics” at the breakfast table. Since I was not sure where she was going to go with this bit of information, I quickly interjected the observation that we wouldn’t. Furthermore, I could perceive where her political sentiments lay, so there was no way my conversations with her and the other guests would have political content! And we all did quite well together, thank you!
Two days later we were browsing The Vermont Country Store where I saw a cap I wanted to buy and wear to her house. She wouldn’t have seen it, though, because I was taught that a man should remove his cap or hat upon entering a house, or restaurant, or any building, for that matter. The hat had a patch on the front of it, which was in the shape of the State of Vermont, and the caption read, “Keep Vermont Weird.”
St. John Baptist might have done well in Vermont! I think he was welcomed into just a few synagogues, when his reputation finally preceded him. If he were to be invited to speak in the churches of our land he would want to preach politics and religion — and probably would have some strong opinions about music! — so I’m sure that we would politely refuse him. I wonder, though, if maybe he would shake off the dust from his feet and move on!
Unfortunately, we would miss the core of his prophetic message. Yes, he challenged the status quo, he lambasted greed and the lust for power, but his message was fundamentally a call to the individual. To each man and woman who listened to him, and to you and me, his is a message of coming redemption, calling us to prepare for it by repentance and baptism. His baptism had no magical powers, but was a sign for the believer and for God that the penitent one truly desired amendment of life and purity in living from that moment on.
Advent recreates for us this call of St. John Baptist. It is a call see and know God deeply.
A disciple asked his teacher, “Sir, please tell me how I can see God.” “Come with me,” the master replied, “and I will show you.” He took the disciple to a lake, and both of them got into the water. Suddenly the teacher forcibly pressed the disciple’s head under the water. After a few moments he released him and the sputtering disciple raised his head and stood up. The master exclaimed, “How do you feel?” The disciple, who was visibly shaken, replied, “Oh! I thought I was going to die . . . I was struggling to breathe. Why did you do this to me?” The master answered, “When you feel as desperate for God as you were for air, then you will know that you haven’t long to wait for a vision of the Divine.”
St. Luke sees John as the one in the wilderness who proclaims the coming of the Messiah. In the words of Isaiah John is said to be the one who invites those who will listen to him to prepare in the wilderness a pathway for the coming of the Lord. This recalls an event five centuries before the preaching of John Baptist. It is the time of the release of Hebrew prisoners from Babylon, the land of the people who conquered Judah and Jerusalem, the home of these Hebrew people. Now, thanks to King Cyrus of Persia, who has conquered Babylon, those who have been held captive for 50-some years — those still living — and their descendants, are set free. It will be a long trek for thousands of them through the Palestinian desert regions, back to their beloved homeland. So the prophet says, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”
And why not the wilderness? It is in the wilderness of Sinai that the people of God, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron, are refined and pruned for their new dwelling place in the land of Canaan. It is in the wilderness, symbolic for every Jew of the haunt of terrible beasts and Satan himself, that Jesus is tested and found worthy of the mission on which God will send him. It is in the “wilderness” of our lives — those times in which everything wonderful and beautiful seems to elude us — that we are actually being tried in our quest for holiness. The way of the wilderness is not an easy one for those who are on a spiritual journey.
The promise of God gives us hope. In that wilderness, that foreboding place of our lives where all joy in living is gone, that the rough places are made smooth. The crooked paths that make our journey more difficult are straitened out. The high mountains, the relentless barriers we have to master in our quest for the rich, spiritual life, will be brought low. And the valleys, into which we sometimes descend — the low points of our lives — will be raised up as level paths so that they are no longer hindrances to our journey. These are what make up the hope of Advent, and which encourage us to journey even further until we, too, like shepherds and magi, find the hope of it all in a manger, in the face of a Child.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"